From Dust is a real time strategy "god" based game from Ubisoft which features a fictional tribe struggling to survive in the harsh world they live in. The player controls the Breath, a manifestation of the world's energy that is able to manipulate the environment to assist the tribe in their struggle. Over the course of the game, the Breath must help shape and shift the levels so that the tribe can live, prosper and continue their journey across the world.
In each level, there are totems where villages may be established. Some of the totems give special abilities to the Breath. These abilities include such things as the ability to jellify the water, put out all the fires or make the water recede. Each of these abilities is geared towards the level that you're playing in and meant to assist in colonizing the map. In addition, the Breath has the innate ability to absorb and redistribute matter; water, sand, lava. This can be used to drain a lake, create land bridges and help spread the vegetation over a level. And finally, there are abilities that the villagers can pick up themselves that assist them from the perils of the world.
Each map is a puzzle, demanding that the player figure out the most effective way of assisting the people in reaching all of the totems and establishing all of the villages on the map. Once all of the villages have been established, the villagers must be led to the portal to the next area. As simple as this may sound, each map has its own unique challenges. One map has a tsunami that constantly washes over a particular area. Another has a volcanic eruption every so often. Each of these challenges can be met with the totem abilities, Breath abilities and village abilities present on each map.
Early on in the game, these challenges can be quite refreshing and exciting to decipher. For example, one of the totems that the villagers need to get to is not only completely submerged by water, but is subject to a timed flooding event. The Breath does have the ability to suck away that water and can even gain the ability to completely drain all the water for a short time, but balancing and timing all of these events with getting the villagers to the totem is challenging. And the abilities that the villagers can use themselves must be found on the map, brought to a village and from there, carried from totem to totem by a villager so that all the people can use it. Very often I found myself scratching my head on how to complete a map, only to figure out how to balance out all the abilities to complete my objective. It could be incredibly rewarding to finally colonize the last totem and start making my way to the ending portal.
Unfortunately, as interesting as I found these challenges, I occasionally found them to be less fun and more frustrating. At a certain point in the game I reached a level where not only was there a timed flood, but a timed volcanic eruption. Manipulating the world and assisting the villagers in these levels left me grinding my teeth in frustration as I struggled to complete it. It stopped being fun at a certain point and started becoming very tedious and annoying. Adding to the issue is the fact that there is a very thin and practically nonexistent storyline in the game, meaning that each of the puzzles is to be completed for the sake of completing the puzzle. If you get sick of the challenges, then the game stops being fun. However, there is a challenge mode that offers smaller, more compact puzzles to complete which may serve as a good distraction from the main game itself.
And the game is very dependent upon the AI villagers moving from totem to totem as needed, and they are notorious for taking the least convenient and most difficult path to the next totem. In some areas this isn't really an issue, but in others your entire plan for the level can be waylaid by the villagers ignoring an easier path and deciding to go along a much more difficult, sometimes incomplete, path. I actually found myself dumping water on my villagers sometimes to wash them off the path they were on and to try to force them onto another.
The art style in the game is very vivid and refreshing, giving a surreal fantasy vibe. If any of you have ever seen the artwork of Neil Gaiman (especially as used in MirrorMask), then you'll have a very good idea of how the game looks. The tribal people have wild hair, stylized blocky face masks and almost Seussian stilt homes that erupt from the ground when they summon them from the ground around their totems. The environments, while limited of necessity, seem vast and unending with hills, valleys and mountains. The landscape is incredibly bleak and vibrant in equal measures, each map having a different theme. Seeing the visuals for the first time left me feeling very excited for the game I had in front of me.
The controls are very simplistic, with the analog sticks being used to move around a cursor (the Breath) and the map screen. When the Breath uses its matter absorbing abilities, the cursor is used to determine where matter is absorbed from or deposited onto. Occasionally it can be difficult to manipulate exactly where matter is manipulated from, but it's simple enough to go back over the map and correct errors. The music in the game is very few and far between, but it is meant to serve as an accent more than a constant background to the game. Animal noises, the sounds of drums beating and the cries of the villagers all add to the ambience of the game.
Overall, From Dust is very vibrant and interesting game and concept, with many compelling aspects to the gameplay. The visuals are stunning, the gameplay is simple and it can easily be played for an hour or five. However, it can become very tedious and frustrating in later levels. And because of the great simplicity of the game itself, frustrated players can find themselves losing interest in the game itself. It's a compelling game for puzzle lovers, but I would suggest caution for others who find themselves getting easily frustrated by having to juggle multiple aspects at once.